Good material reference when translating sports! This article is part of the Sports newsletter from the New York Times dated Aug. 2, 2018. Enjoy!
This List Is “Out of Left Field”
Your third-grade phys ed teacher used them all the time. Your neighbor does, too. Even your teenage daughter pulls them out every once in a while.
We’re talking about sports idioms, those everyday phrases ingrained in our lexicon, handed down from generation to generation. We use these terms all the time, without really knowing where they came from. Some of their origins are pretty clear: front-runner, on the ropes, the ball is in your court. But there are many others whose provenances are not so apparent.
I decided to do some digging and found myself down a real rabbit hole (not a sports idiom) of interesting origins. I hope you enjoy them!
“Hat in the Ring”
Back in the days when boxing was a quasi-legal, rough-and-tumble affair, fighters and even spectators who had an interest in getting into a bout would signal it by tossing in a hat. It’s mostly used now in the rough-and-tumble field of politics to announce that one is running for office.
Its first use, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came in The London Times in 1804, in its literal sense: “Belcher first threw his hat into the ring, over the heads of the spectators.”
Yes, it’s from a sport. No, not from one involving geese. In the 17th century, it was quite the thing to set one horse off on a ramble and require the trailing horses, set off at intervals, to follow it as accurately as possible. It was known as a wild-goose chase. Soon the term became used for any hopeless quest.
And Shakespeare’s Mercutio used it as well, in reference to a duel of wits with Romeo: “Nay if our wits run the wild goose chase, I am done.”
“Throw in the Towel”
In boxing, a fighter’s cornerman throwing a towel into the ring has traditionally been a sign of surrender, quitting or giving up. But in earlier times, it was a sponge that was hurled, and “chuck up the sponge” was the more common phrase.
A 1911 article in The New York Times about a fight in the Bronx used both terms: “His seconds threw a towel in the ring announcing defeat at the beginning of the fifth round” and “Johnson’s seconds threw up the sponge for their man and saved him a further beating.”
(The spectators were not happy with the towel or sponge’s appearance, The Times reported. “For a few moments it looked serious for the second, who was finally enabled to escape the angry fight followers by getting out of a side door of the clubhouse.”)
Also from boxing: down for the count, saved by the bell, take it on the chin and below the belt.
“Out of Left Field”
Why is left field the spot where kooky ideas come from? Why not right or center? Well, no one is really too sure.
In 1961, William Safire devoted a Times column to the topic putting forth numerous ideas, including that left field was often deeper than right in early baseball stadiums, that weaker fielders were put in left and that left fielders tended to play farther back.
A more colorful explanation is that behind the left-field wall at the Cubs’ West Side Grounds, in use from 1893 to 1915, was a mental hospital whose patients could sometimes be heard making bizarre remarks during the game.
It was an easy decision, not close at all, requiring no effort, but why is that “hands down”? It sounds like it might be from a card game, but it actually comes from horse racing. When a jockey has a race in the bag, he can relax his hold on the reins and stop urging the horse so hard.
The Times wrote about Watson’s win in the first running of the Jerome Stakes in 1866: “Although he gave it a semblance of a race, he quitted them whe he liked and won hands down in 1:48. (The Jerome is still being run at Aqueduct, by the way, with Kelso, Housebuster and Fusaichi Pegasus among its winners.)
We’re getting an awful lot of terms from baseball, horse racing and boxing. These were the three most popular sports in the United States in the first part of the 20th century. And they required a big vocabulary.
“Wheelhouse, Strong Suit and Forte”
Something about a person’s strongest interest or ability seems to attract sports terms.
Wheelhouse comes from baseball: the area in which a batter feels most comfortable hitting the ball. Strong suit is from card games. And forte? Believe it or not, it’s a fencing term. The forte is the stronger part of a sword blade.
“Across the Board”
People didn’t start using this term to mean “generally or “all inclusively” until the 1940s. But its use in horse racing predated that by 50 years. You can bet on a horse to win, place (second) or show (third). But if you make all three bets, in equal amounts, you are said to be taking the horse “across the board.” Early bookmakers would post odds on a sign or a board.
Another one from horse racing: Down to the wire. At one time, a wire was strung across the finish line at racetracks.
“There’s the Rub”
More Shakespearean sport: When Hamlet says “To sleep — perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!” by rub, he meant difficulty. The term comes from lawn bowling, of all sports.
The “rub” is an unevenness in the playing surface that can cause the ball to slow or alter course.
“The Whole Nine Yards”
You need 10 yards to get a first down, so why the odd number to express going all the way? It turns out that while this sure sounds like a term from sports, it’s not. The Oxford England Dictionary reports that it comes from a 19th century comic story told in Indiana and Kentucky.
In 1855, The New Albany Daily Ledger of Indiana spun the tale, ending with the punch line: “I told her to get just enough to make three shirts; instead of making three, she has put the whole nine yards into one shirt!”
(They loved that gag back in the day.)
You want to go the whole nine yards on this term? The Times had two whole articles on the subject in 2013, raising a host of other possibilities as well.
“The Big Apple”
In the 19th century, people with a lot of certainty about something might have said that they were willing to “bet a big apple” on it. Perhaps that helped extend the use to horse racing, and New York’s racing circuit, the most prominent in the country, came to be known by the term.
“The Big Apple,” The Morning Telegraph wrote in 1924. “The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There’s only one Big Apple. That’s New York.”
Soon all of New York had picked up the name.
Did I miss any of your favorites? If you think of any others, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org